“try again with gentle hands”

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Parenting has led me to continually ask Dustin, “Does this all just feel like a crap-shoot? Like we’re just making it up as we go?”

His normal response. “Yes.”

Mine. “Ok. Good. At least I’m not alone.”

And while parenting is just so much trial by fire, along the way in the last two and a half years, we’ve found a couple (of the hundreds of approaches we’ve tried) that have had some results in shaping behavior.

One of the recommended ways to deal with kids who have experienced trauma is to use a technique we like to call “try again”.

 

It’s basically a way to stay connected with kids while helping them learn the expectations of the home. Instead of following misbehavior with an immediate consequence, it gives the child a chance to correct the behavior immediately, doing it over in a way that is acceptable. It’s a beautiful technique that has proved to be incredibly beneficial to us.

“Try again with gentle hands.” “Try again with kind words.”

When our daughter demands we read a book rather than asking if we would read a book, we prompt her with,

“Try again with asking words”.

“Will you read me a book, please?”

“Sure!”

Simple, right?

Riiight. Because parenting is simple. Ha!

Let’s take it up a notch. Perhaps you have a child who likes to run down the church hallway while adults carry their non-lidded, piping-hot coffee to the sanctuary.

If “use walking feet” is the instruction for the church hallway, and she runs, we (hopefully) calmly say, “Come back and try again with walking feet”. If she runs again, we give her the prompt again, and let her try again. Two to three times usually does the trick on that one. It’s a little tedious, but it teaches and hopefully prevents her from being scalded by a hot cup of joe.

For benign scenarios like walking in a hallway or asking to read a book, this has proven to be a simple, somewhat easy way of shaping behavior.

The difficult parts come when the scenarios have more emotion involved.

For instance, when one of our girls uses her hands in a mean way, either hitting or grabbing from the other, we would love to be able to use this technique every time. We see it’s effectiveness. It diffuses the situation. It gives grace. It teaches.

But it’s so hard when our own emotions are triggered by the particulars. It feels easier to just raise our voices, separate them, and take away the toy they are fighting over so we gain a little peace and quiet. (I use this example, but it’s actually a rare one in our home.) Our girls tend to get along remarkably well. The patience of our 7-year-old is astounding at times. She’s a gift to our family and a sweet sister.

Anyway, here’s a situation that we deal with multiple times a day, every single day. Let’s say my daughter is being sassy and talking back to me instead of doing what I’ve asked her to do. It feels easier to just say “No! You will not talk to me like that. Leave the table.” I want to lay down the law. I want her to obey. I want her to remember I’m in charge and that she isn’t allowed to talk like that.

And that may all be true. I do want her to learn to listen to instructions. I want her to choose kind words even when she doesn’t feel like doing what someone in authority has asked her to do. And I definitely want her to understand that her actions have consequences.

But this whole “try again” way of parenting requires me to dig a little deeper. Parenting with this connection in mind requires me to remember that she is another human being with emotions that are far more complex than she’s capable of expressing with words.

And this way of parenting requires that I recognize my own emotions that are in the game as well. I’m feeling frustrated and disrespected. I’m sometimes feeling hopeless, like everything I’m doing isn’t helping her learn to make better choices. So, I can either demonstrate what it looks like to deal with big emotions calmly, or I can give in to my natural way of behaving and freak out. She’s going to be soaking in whichever one I put on display.

And let me be clear, I fail at this daily. I react more often than I respond. I lose my cool and let my desire to control usurp my deepest desire for connection. The worst parts of me can bubble right to the surface when the little people I am raising don’t just do what I ask them to do.

But sometimes, on good days, I dig deep. I hear her sassy words and the tone that triggers, and I breathe first, just one good deep breath. I remind myself that she is little and I am big. I reach into my parenting arsenal (which seems to be small and ever-changing) and pull out “try again”, prompting her to live up to the expectations that we have, giving her a chance to practice in an environment that is safe and forgiving.

“Try again with kind words.”

It doesn’t change the fact that we expect her to be respectful and to listen to directions. I think we actually have really high expectations in our home (which is probably not surprising). So, if “try again” doesn’t work after a chance or two, we head to the “thinking chair” and make space for her to calm down and think things through.

The “thinking chair” is an alternative to time-out in which we sit with her instead of asking her to go. This also takes time. I have to stop eating dinner to go sit with the daughter who just triggered some emotions in me. And if I’m not in a really good place, I don’t actually feel like doing that.

But most days, and especially in the first couple of years, we sit together. Silently.

I don’t immediately start asking questions or bring up ways she could have done things better. She’s already shown me that she needs some space to breathe, and I could often use that space as well.

So sometimes, we breathe together. “Smell the roses.” “Blow out the candles.” In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Reset.

Dustin and I know from all of our training and reading that it’s better (if possible) to keep the connection rather than cutting it off, especially with kids who’ve experienced abuse and neglect. They’ve already been separated from family, and these kids often don’t understand that they did nothing wrong. The turmoil in their lives has nothing to do with them. And yet, for little minds, who are just learning to piece the world together, cause and effect aren’t always clear. If things fell apart before, what’s stopping it from happening again? Can adults be trusted to stick with them?

So, it’s our goal to help rewrite that story of family. As authentically as possible, while honoring their parents’ efforts in whatever way we can, we attempt to cultivate something different.

In our home, family means staying. Family means talking through the pain. Family means trust. Family means love, no matter what.

The Jesus Storybook Bible says God loves his children with a “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”

We’re aiming for our home to reflect that beautiful love.


 

By the way. We’re not super smart, as I’m sure you may have guessed. We found all of this wonderful information and so much more (that we haven’t put into practice as much as we’d like) from the book The Connected Child and the Empowered to Connect Conference. The late Dr. Karin Purvis was a phenomenal practitioner of Trust-Based Relational Intervention and her work with kids from hard places is absolutely wonderful. I cannot imagine a book being more impactful in the life of a foster parent.

 

 

a sleepover, shower, and support

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We went to the girls’ daycare on the Monday morning after we had met.  

The girls were happy to see us when we arrived. They showed us their room and introduced us to their friends. They loved their “school”, and it was clear that their teachers knew and loved them well.

Along with S (their foster mom), we filled the teachers in on the family transition plan. Dustin and I definitely wanted them to stay enrolled there, even though it wasn’t super convenient to our home or jobs. At least they’d have one area of consistency in their ever-changing lives.

 


On Thursday evening, we picked the girls up from their house and took them back to ours to have a two-day sleepover.

We grabbed their overnight bags, a couple of their favorite toys, and their little hands. K secured their car seats. They said goodbye to K & S and climbed into the backseat of our car. 

Neither asked very many questions about what was going on, and our younger daughter was incredibly quiet. (If you know our girls at all, you know this is odd.) We knew they were uncomfortable, which was to be expected, so we continued to talk, play music, and prep them for the fun we had planned all weekend. What else could we do? 

The truth is, our younger daughter is quite the talker. She’s vivacious, spunky, and hilarious. It’s only when she’s uncomfortable that she clams up, shows less emotion, and becomes much more shy. We didn’t know that about her then, but looking back, it is so clear. She was terrified.


All things considered, it was a fun and exhausting weekend together. The girls took a while to get adjusted to their room, which they were thrilled about having, so bedtime was a bit of a chore, especially the first night. Dustin and I slept terribly, wondering if they’d be ok in their room, if they’d need anything in the middle of the night, and if we were doing any of this right.

They were up on Friday morning by 5:30am, which was ridiculously early by our standards. So we snuggled on the couch and watched some Netflix together as half of us guzzled coffee. 

We spent the next two days just doing random things together. It didn’t feel as much like parenting as it did babysitting, which we were accustomed to, so things went fairly smoothly. Dustin spent years being a manny, so he’s particularly good at finding ways to keep kids entertained.

When it was time to take them back on Saturday evening, the girls were sad to say goodbye to us but so happy to see S & K and their brother.

We had 8 days to get ready for their official move.

The following weekend, our friends put together a party for us – a “baby shower” of sorts.

There was delicious food and cute decorations. Our closest friends from church surrounded us with gifts and cards and words of encouragement. We felt so loved and supported.

If we hadn’t already believed we could do this, their belief in us had given us the extra confidence we needed to enter that difficult new season. With friends like those, we at least had a shot at making it through. 


Many foster families have supportive communities around them. The catch is that sometimes the good friends who love and support us in many other parts of life, don’t know what to do when someone enters the foster care adventure. There are so many unknowns and obvious uncertainty.

So how can family and friends come alongside those who are fostering, especially knowing that the family dynamics are ever-changing? What are the most helpful ways to reach out? 

My first suggestion is to ask good questions. Listen to the particulars of their story and the unique situation for that family. They may not need a party every time a new child comes into their family, but there are most likely needs that you can meet.

They might need help with transportation for other kiddos who are in their home, so that they can be home with their new addition(s). They might appreciate meals to help make weeknights a little easier. They might need babysitting, so they can attend a foster parent support group. They might need help mowing the lawn for a week or two so they can spend their time helping their new kiddos get acclimated.

They might appreciate physical items like diapers or wipes for a baby that arrives with only the clothes on her back. They might need extra beds or dressers or car seats when they say yes to a sibling set they weren’t expecting.

Sometimes, like everyone, foster parents have a hard time asking for help. They know they are the ones who have “signed up for this”, so it can be hard to reach out or even accept help.

So lean in and listen and don’t take “we’re doing fine” at face value. There isn’t a single foster parent I know that doesn’t at least need encouragement, prayer, and lots of hugs. 

This type of presence will mean the world to them. It’s a gift to have people who are unconditionally “for you”, especially in the midst of an overwhelming, broken system. Without our people in the process, I’m not sure we would have made it through.

becoming Mom and Dad

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After we initially said “yes” to our girls, there was a little wiggle room in terms of the transition schedule. We decided to meet them at their house where they were most comfortable. We planned to have dinner and spend some time just getting to know them and their foster parents.

I was incredibly nervous as I was getting ready for that evening, and as we pulled into their neighborhood, Dustin and I grabbed hands and prayed one last prayer together.

“Help us connect with them.”

When the door opened, the girls were excited. (They still get super riled up when we have guests over.) Their foster dad (K) and foster mom (S) greeted us, and we were off – playing and interacting with the kids who are today our girls. We ate spaghetti and attempted to play a game together. We watched them dress-up and dance to the music from Frozen. I braided their hair. We took a tour of their home as they talked about their toys and clothes and beds. We took a few pictures together.

They called us “Mom” and “Dad” immediately, which was not something I was expecting at all and was in no way indicative of their understanding of what was happening. In fact, the girls didn’t know why we were there. They didn’t know the plan yet. As far as they knew, we were just safe adults, and safe adults were called Mom and Dad.

It was precious and confusing and heartbreaking all at once. Mom and Dad should not be fluid concepts for kids. Mom and Dad should be specific people who have been there from the beginning. They should be steady and present. They should be trustworthy. They should be permanent.

But the “shoulds” were left behind a long time ago, and this 3 and 4-year-old girl were working within a new reality – a reality in which they adjusted and adapted based upon circumstances that were thrown at them. Somehow, they were still so sweet and happy and full of life. And these girls, who loved their home and their family, had no idea how much their life was about to change.

Even today, I know I can’t fully understand the sadness and fear they must have felt as life changed, once again, forever.


 

After all of the activities, it was the girls’ bedtime. K & S asked if we wanted to do the bedtime routine, which seemed a little crazy since we had just met them a couple of hours prior to this. And while it seemed odd, we figured we’d be doing it soon enough anyway. So we went upstairs with them.

They knew what to do. Brush teeth. Put on pajamas. Sing songs. Read stories. Pray together. We rocked them both. It was a sweet night that I’ll always remember.

We came downstairs, and asked S & K lots of questions, as many as we could think of. Those questions didn’t even scratch the surface of the things we’d end up needing to know about the girls. They had a whole life established that we were coming into and disrupting in a major way.

There were basic questions: What did they like to eat? What time did they wake up? What were their favorite books and toys? When were their birthdays?

And there were deeper questions – about their first few years of life, their parents, their extended family, their future. There were so many unknowns. How could we possibly catch up this quickly?

So, after plenty of questions it was time for us to leave. We said goodbye to S & K, made plans to see the girls again the next week, and headed home.


 

When the girls talk about that night or about how we became a family, they don’t remember it very well. So we explain it like this:

“God knew that we were waiting to be a mom and dad of two special little girls. And he knew that you, two special little girls, needed a mom and dad that would keep you safe and give you all of the time, attention, and love that you need. So when S & K realized that everyone needed something different, Miss Caseworker called us and told us about you. We told her – yes! We want to meet them! We’ve been waiting for them!”

And that simple explanation is best way I know how to say it. We had been waiting for them.

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on your sixth birthday

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You’re six today, Sweet Girl! It’s pretty hard to believe.

Though you don’t quite understand months and weeks and even days all the way, you’ve been living with much anticipation knowing your birthday was approaching sometime soon. We’ve checked the calendar so many times this month, as you’ve found the day where I’ve drawn the cake and written your name. I bought presents and made pancakes for breakfast and we filled our upstairs with balloons for you to find when you woke up. I hope you feel celebrated and loved, because you really, truly are.

Many mamas are able to vividly remember the day their babies entered this world, but that is not our story. I didn’t spend time with you during the middle of the night feedings or diaper changes. I didn’t see your first smile, first steps, or first words. I’m not the only mom you’ve ever known, and that makes our story heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. That’s how this world works so often, little one. Two huge emotions at the same time. You know this well, since your emotions are big and real and easily seen and heard by those around you. I love this about you and can’t wait to see the ways your sensitive heart is used in this world. What a gift to feel so fully.

So how do I describe you on this 6th birthday of yours?

You’re spunky and persistent and sometimes your dad and I just look at each other and wonder how someone so small can be so incredibly funny.

You’re empathetic and kind. You love babies and toddlers and the elderly, basically anyone who seems like they might need your help. You are quick to notice when others are hurt, and literally run to grab ice packs and band-aids.

You are an actress – able to pretend for hours with just a few toys because your imagination is actually your playground.

You are joyful and silly and you leave an impression with everyone you meet. Just today, two individuals from our church reached out to see if they could bring you a gift. You’re so easy to fall in love with.


 

Before you went to sleep last night, when the Bible story had been read and it was time for you to climb into bed, you grabbed your pillow, turned to me and said,

“Mama, will you rock me?”

And for the last time, I rocked my five-year-old for a moment and reminded you that I will rock you for as many years as you want. If that’s the place that makes you feel safe and secure and at peace, then crawl on up, Sweet Girl, I’ve got a place for you.

 

 

before we met

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While we were waiting and the months were going by, I started to wonder if we needed to widen our parameters for saying “yes” to a placement.  We’d only received three calls in five months and had turned them all down fairly quickly.

But at the same time, we weren’t necessarily in a huge rush. Dustin and I knew things would be really different soon, and we did our best to enjoy our freedom. We went on dates. Slept in. Hung out with friends and hosted parties. We took a road trip to San Diego in January to see our friends who were living out there. Honestly, while we were waiting, we just continued to live our lives as normal, sometimes forgetting that at a moment’s notice our whole life could change.

During the first week of February 2015, I got a call from our licensing worker asking if we’d be willing to foster 3 kiddos – a boy and two girls. The girls were within the age range we were looking for and the boy was a little older. While I was starting to feel a little antsy about saying no, I still felt like this wasn’t the right “yes” for us.

I said no, but told our licensing worker to let me know if they couldn’t find a placement, and we might reconsider. I didn’t hear anything the rest of that day and assumed they found another home that was a better fit.

About a week later, she called again.

“Would you be willing to take the two girls we talked about last week? The family they are with has decided to continue fostering their brother but would like the girls to be moved so that they can keep up. The goal is still to return home, but it’s looking more and more like this situation will end in adoption.”


 

Like the good Father than I know He is, I believe God began preparing all of our hearts for the journey of our family well before this phone call.

During the early years of their lives, when those two precious girls were born to parents who were not able to adequately care for them, our eyes were being opened to the deep levels of need in this world. We were learning more about vulnerable people groups and those on the margins of society. We began to read about the orphan crisis around the world and the deep need for foster parents in our own cities in the United States.

When we clearly felt God’s urging to pursue our own family in an unconventional way, we were living in Oklahoma and our girls were already living the earliest days of their stories, which were not yet intertwined with ours. It’s still sort of surreal to think about.

I remember praying with Dustin during those pre-fostering years – for God to be with our future children in a special way. We were aware that they had probably already been born, and that in those very moments that we were praying, they were likely experiencing trauma in some form. Our prayers were for God to comfort them, make himself known to them, and keep them close. I don’t fully understand the way that prayer works or how it all fits together, but I know that those early prayers connected us to our daughters in a deep way, and I believe that God was with them when the circumstances they were facing were beyond what any child should encounter.


 

The licensing worker continued, “So what do you think?”

This seemed like a great fit for us, but I was super tentative to say yes to splitting siblings. I shared that concern with our worker. She let me know they were going to be separated from their brother for sure since it was best for him to stay if he could rather than having to move again. She was doing her best to at least keep the girls together, so they weren’t split into three different homes.

I told her I’d talk to Dustin and let her know for sure, but it seemed like we would be saying yes. It wasn’t an emergency situation since they were in a safe home, so we had a little time to talk it over. She said the family would like to remain in the girls’ life as grandparent figures. In fact, when I first heard the situation, I thought she said they were the girls’ grandparents – stellar communication apparently. Anyway, Dustin and I hadn’t thought about what it would be like to parent kids who had siblings in a different home, but we were open to the idea.

After a short discussion with Dustin about the situation, we both felt that this was the right yes. I called her back, and we agreed to welcome the girls. I felt equal amounts of terror and peace.

Our licensing worker gave our phone number to their foster mom. She called me later that day, and we made plans to have dinner at their house to meet the girls. A week and a half later, on February 21, 2015, we met our daughters and our lives were changed forever.

 

“no, no, no, no…YES!”

IMG_6050.JPGI remember receiving our first possible placement phone call from our licensing worker. It was the day she was scheduled to come to our house for the final time before we were officially set to welcome children. She’d be checking to make sure we had some of the basics in place: smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, water temps that weren’t too hot, etc. She was scheduled to be there at 4pm that day, and at 10 that morning she called to ask if we’d be open to fostering 3 kids. Um… Panic.

While I haven’t worked in the foster care field, I can only imagine how hard it must be to make these types of calls to prospective foster parents. These workers have to push because they have to find good homes for kids, and sometimes there just isn’t a home/family that is going to fit the exact criterion they are looking for. They still have to find a home, and they still have time restraints. I’m sure they hear “no” often, and it must be difficult. This explains why we’d be called about a placement before they had completed the final home inspection.

In our city, Peoria, when children come into care, the first agency on DCFS’s list (which is on a rotational basis) gets called with the open case. Once they receive the case, the agency now has about 45 minutes to find a suitable home for the children involved. 45 minutes. If they don’t find a home in that amount of time, the case gets moved to the next agency on the list to search through that list of homes.

This 45-minute window does not account for any children who are already in foster care and need to be moved from their current foster home. This is called a disrupted placement and could happen for a variety of reasons. A job change. A marriage in crisis. Big behaviors in a kiddo that a family isn’t equipped to handle. A needed time of refreshment. Issues between kids within the home.

These workers have to figure out where to move those kiddos as well as work under the time-constraints that come with children who are being removed from the only home they’ve ever known. What a difficult job.

For that first placement call, the one at 10am on the day we were to be licensed, I politely declined, wondering if saying no was now going to bump us down the list of potential placements. I didn’t want to have a negative label or be seen as “unwilling”, but I also knew that taking three kids that day was not the wise thing to do because Dustin and I had spent lots of time talking through possible scenarios.

Going in thinking that you just want to “help some kids” is a sweet thought at first, but the more I learned about the foster care system, the more I realized that that type of blissful thinking is often the unintended recipe for what could have been an avoidable disaster. I suggest having these important conversations while you are going through the required foster parenting classes. It’s best to have had these conversations in a calm environment, without the pressure of a precious kiddo’s story being shared with you.

It’s good to have some filters in mind before you’re standing alone in the church kitchen making 240 hot dogs for the Fall Block Party that you are in charge of, trying to decide if you should welcome an infant with some medical needs into your family in about an hour. (real life) The answer that day was also “no”.

So, while you’re learning about trauma and reunification plans and the system’s ins and outs, here are some filters that I suggest thinking through:

What is your best contribution? What are you (and your partner/spouse) capable of doing? What can you bring to the foster parent table that is unique?

Are you uniquely positioned to care for a child with special medical needs? Maybe you could say yes to a kiddo who requires extra doctor’s appointments or feeding tubes.

Are you open to parenting children who might need therapy for behavioral issues? What about kids who start fires? Teens who run away? Kids who have been diagnosed with a mental illness? There was a really specific list of all sorts of behaviors on our forms, and Dustin and I talked through all of them ahead of time.

How many kids are you open to?

This isn’t a question of just having enough actual space for kids, which is something to be considered, but it also entails thinking through your emotional capacity, work schedules, day care options, support systems, and parenting experience.

What kind of trauma are you willing to take on?

This is always a big one to consider, especially when there are other children in the home. While there are some times when you won’t know the types of trauma a child has faced, most licensing workers will be able to give you a little bit of an idea if there has been reported neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse. If one of those seems like a really difficult thing to navigate based on your own upbringing, the current ages/genders of the kids in your home, or any other reason, it’s good to be honest with yourself and your licensing worker.

We landed on 2 being our preferred number of kids to start with and really wanted siblings if possible. We didn’t want to be out-numbered (we have no biological kids by choice) and wanted them to have someone else to play with. We prefered girls and we were open to several special behavioral needs, but would be saying no to severe medical needs. It felt very weird to think through all of this, like at some level we were discriminating against certain types of kids. But at the same time, we were so grateful to have taken the time to talk about specifics. It gave us the space to be prayerful, intentional, and realistic about our capacity.

Another key component for us, and something I recommend for to-be foster parents, is to leave space for God’s grace. If we were all going to just say yes to things WE’RE capable of, then I think we’d all just say no to parenting in general. His grace is always a factor and gets us through when we take on a more than what we can handle.

Once you’ve thought through the factors, decide who will be able to stick to the plan and not be overly eager to say yes when you get a call. In our particular situation, we said no 4 times before saying yes, and I was the one to do that each time. In fact, I said “no” to our girls the first time around, which I’ll share about next time.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Noticing God in the Voting Line

I didn’t expect my voting experience to be a spiritual one. I’ve never been super into politics and have even exercised my right not to vote a time or two. And while I know and believe that everything is spiritual at some level, most times I just like to get stuff done. Today, voting was just one of the many tasks on my to-do list.

So when I pulled into the parking lot at my polling place and was immediately overwhelmed with emotion, I was caught off-guard.

At first, I thought it might have been anxiety. It’s no secret that this election has been tough to get through. But as I approached the door, I realized I wasn’t feeling anxiety about the outcome of today or what the future holds.

I was feeling inspired and encouraged.

The first person I noticed was a woman with braces on her legs who was almost at the entrance. A man ahead of her was waiting at the door to hold it open for her and then for me as we entered the building. Then, I noticed a woman in line helping direct another voter to his correct polling place. She was using her phone to look up the location, and then gave him directions, making sure he understood where to go.

Once in line, I noticed an elderly women, who had probably voted in countless elections, slowly making her way into the building. Behind her, I noticed a young woman who may have been casting her vote for president for the first time.

I continued to watch people, which is really one of my favorite things to do. In fact, I often feel closest to God when I am around groups of people, just taking it all in. I love sitting in coffee shops and watching people come in and out, going about their daily lives.

Usually I’m too busy to realize that those around me aren’t just a backdrop to my story, but once in a while, when I give myself the space to just sit and watch I begin to notice what is actually true. The people around me have their own relationships and emotions and real lives being lived right along side mine, intersecting with mine for a moment or two as we wait for our coffee or brush past each other to find a seat.

And today, at my polling place, this was another one of those moments – an opportunity to notice God around me by noticing the beautiful people who are my neighbors.

There was great diversity in that line to vote, and I’m sure our ballots looked much different in the end. But as we waited, before the ballots were cast and our political lines were officially drawn, our shared humanity was most evident. We were just people, waiting to do what we all believe to be important, reaching out to one another by holding doors and giving directions.

And I was reminded that God’s image, the imago dei, is in each of us. That his goodness and beauty and love is there. And one of the things I want my life to be about is noticing, standing up for, and calling forth that image of God in those around me every day. Because the truth is, no matter what tomorrow brings, we’re in this together.